What's incredible is the levity that Wells manages to bring along with the gravity of the subject matter. In this production, Danna is a three-dimensional character who can't be reduced to her trauma, no matter how life-altering it is. She's still a full person who loves, who struggles to connect with her family, who can be sarcastic or genuine or standoffish, depending on the situation at hand.
Rachel F Goldberg, Broadway World, Kennedy Center Debut, 2020
I always thought my job as writer and performer was to tell Danna's story it in all of its colours, that this piece should absolutely not push any overt political or legislative agenda. I believe in letting art be art, despite how tempting it is to support trauma-informed legislation. Plus, no-one goes to the theatre to be told what to do. In participating in her story this way, I have come to be more educated, and it is outside the play where I became an activist for zero tolerance and zero occurrence of MST (military sexual trauma).
However, storytelling as an activity these days is political. The central tenent behind Heroine is the belief that "It is not the event that has the power to define our lives - but the story we choose to tell about it.” Heroine’s power lies in its potential for onlookers to experience and transform internally. It does what no conference can ever do, in that its impact is visceral.
Too often women’s stories that do manage to be told are as patriachy has told them - and this is what many people, regardless of gender, recognise as standard. Heroine embodies the movement from a patriarchal storytelling model to the way a woman tells a story whilst she is making the transition into acknowledging her narrative as distinct. Stories like Danna's have value, that culturally we do not recognise enough yet. Stories like hers show what trying to birth them is like when patriarchy's hammy fists are all over everything still. :)
For Danna, I think the dynamic action of performing her story holds transformative potential for self-worth that listening ears and soothing words do not. Hannah Gadsby talks about the exhaustion she felt without a community to witness and understand - "Please help me take care of my story." The implication is not just that she is too tired to carry it alone, or even that it is so lonely to carry it without human connection but also that we might not ultimately get the value of it. Danna too needed her story heard, felt and understood out in the world.
True stories like hers are powerful in what they tell us about power, and how to treat the vulnerable. To be powerless does not destroy our humanity - resilience is our humanity. Humanity has been destroyed in those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. Hannah Gadsby also says "to yield and not break - THAT is incredible strength" and I agree. I also think diversity is strength, and giving up power from a privileged vantage point is a necessary strength. It's an actor’s job is to embody each perspective and make an audience feel each perspective, so then the entire picture can be seen without one perspective getting stuck and favoured for so long we think it’s the right and only way of telling it. We invalidate these other perspectives in favour of the one we recognise most often - that of the white straight male - and that has been the one that we’ve ended up believing and investing in. #timesup for storytelling too.
Scotland made a brave move to fund us to explore and create Heroine with an audience in the way we did, and in doing so also rejected both the cultural normalisation of sexual assault, and the trope that this subject is just “too difficult”.
Heroine will run at Perth Rep and The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh during the trial of former First Minister Alex Salmond, currently accused of multiple counts of rape and sexual assault. Then we debut immediately after at The Kennedy Center, Washington DC, in the heartland of political America during the most fevered run up to an election in years. An election around a president who has 25 allegations of sexual assault in his wake, and is a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist. It is my hope with Heroine that community of survivors are visibly validated, told through tangible action that their story is the told in their words, whilst we are listening - and that culture does not come from the top down. Change is possible. Disruption is necessary. Leverage, resistance and debate can be elegant, democratic and fierce at the same time and bring accountability and much-needed justice.
We want to give voice to this particular story so that the audience who watch it are held and moved by it, so that it can be part of a larger story that can peaceably become past, and so the woman to whom it belongs does not feel alone when she walks in it everyday. And maybe, maybe.... it can encourage actual, real change.
Heroine provided a safe place for survivors to disclose without forcing them into the public arena, and to begin a commitment to their healing journey by breaking their own silence. The brilliance of #Metoo is ongoing, but it arguably also created a pressure for survivors to step the spotlight in a bid for solidarity before some were ready. The play gives, for its duration on stage, a feeling of community as an audience goes through the ride together, but also some sort of anonymised permission in its message to come forward, that assault and trauma of many kinds can be survivable. We received a deluge of disclosures on a "brown envelope" page set up for people to talk directly to our therapist and to Danna during our run at Fringe in 2018, reviewed for triggering content before it was forwarded to her. Some from people we knew, who had never mentioned it to us before, some from industry peers, some total strangers. One from a perpetrator. Both therapy teams from Safe to Say in Edinburgh, and from the Steven A Cohen Clinic and Melwoods Veterans in DC had direct contact with many audience members who had seen Heroine and supported them after our visits to work through difficult feelings that arose from watching. We prepped theatres to be trauma informed and survivor-centred and for each to provide a private space for survivors to disclose to either a civilian or a military therapist, and the web page for disclosures and referrals long after the show has left town.
I knew I would stress-test an audience with Danna’s story; that through this process I was also investigating resiliency. Her story was called "almost too much at times" last year by Critic Thom Dibdin and a run was an important process to gauge how to remain faithful to the content, without overwhelming in the wrong way. I now feel it is very difficult for survivors to watch, even though it is for them. I've realised Heroine reaches out to survivors during the show, but on a broader scale is "for" those who do not understand the survivor experience. It was always my plan to throw the play into the world like a compassion grenade, but God save us from writers who try to be Noble. All the heroine team work by also creating a place for laughter and lightness with all of it. Survivor humour is essential: for us and the audience but also to show that it's Danna's narrative, and she is never a figure of tragedy.
For those who are not survivors, Heroine educates on a topic that mostly remains hidden from view and impervious to change. By supporting Heroine’s trajectory, you are also part of a transformative ritual for worth, one which supports Danna's courage in coming forward in the first place.
I’ve observed Danna change her ideas about what strength and weakness are over the years. "I think the key to survival is self-compassion, kindness and of course, forgiveness”. I think we also leave our audiences with hope.
Thank you for reading, and being a part of this ongoing journey.